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Books on the Cold War

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Books - The Cold War

Redeye - Fulda Cold, Bill Fortin .A novel largely set on the East-West German border during the Cold War, following the experiences of an American draftee during his two years of service in the late 1960s. Feels far more like an autobiography than a novel, with a mix of historical and fictional figures, while the lead character is involved on the edge of a piece of Cold War military diplomacy. [read full review]

Liberation or Catastrophe, Michael Howard. A series of eighteen essays examining the military history of the twentieth century, looking at the causes of the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, the place of Europe in the post-Cold War world and the correct response to the threat from terror. A thought provoking series of essays from a distinguished historian. [see more]

The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, Leonardo Sciascia. A short but interesting book written some time after the event, this probing book asks many questions about how the Italian police and Government handled the kidnapping. It is also a good insight into the nature of Italian politics of the time and the climate which produced the terrorists.


The Cold War : A History

So begins The Cold War: A History, a wide-ranging narrative by award-winning political commentator Martin Walker, which was one of the first major studies of its kind. Now that it's over, it's crucial to our future to understand how the Cold War has shaped us and, especially, to recognize it as the economic and political dynamic that determined the structure of today's global economy.

From the origins of the Marshall Plan, which revived Europe after World War II, and the strategic decision to rebuild a defeated Japan into a bulwark against China, to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this authoritative work reveals how the West was built into an economic alliance that overpowered the Soviet economy while also unleashing global economic forces that today challenge the traditional nation-state.

The Cold War was more of a global conflict than was either of this century's two major wars far more than a confrontation between states or even empires, it was, as Martin Walker puts it, "a total war between economic and social systems, an industrial test to destruction."

Walker reminds us how easy it is to forget that there were many occasions in the late 1940s in which victory seemed far from assured, and that this uncertainty lent a particular urgency to the efforts of postwar Western leaders. The West continued to be alarmed by the prospect of defeat right up to the Soviet empire's last breath. At the end of the 1940s the fear was generated by communist expansion into Eastern Europe and China in the 1960s by the prospect of defeat in Vietnam. In the 1970s the failure of détente and the West's economic crisis brought a new generation of dedicated anti-Communists to prominence. For more than forty years, as this detailed analysis makes clear, the outcome of the Cold War was in doubt.

We also come to understand how the arms race caused new alignments and shifts in domestic power. As the United States became the national security state, California, which had a population of five million at the start of the Cold War, grew to thirty million and, by the 1980s provided one in every ten members of Congress and two presidents.

Using newly opened Kremlin archives and his own experiences in the field, Martin Walker has written a brilliant analysis of the conflict that has shaped the contemporary world.


Who was Juliet Stuart Poyntz? Some early Cold War history in new book

In the world of Red Scare anti-communist narratives, few have endured as long or been as impactful as the story of Juliet Stuart Poyntz.

Denise M. Lynn, associate professor of history and director of gender studies at the University of Southern Indiana, tackles her case in a newly published book from the University of Massachusetts Press.

Lynn’s Where Is Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War tells an important story. Poyntz was a suffragist, radical feminist, union organizer, and early leader of the Communist Party USA. She spent her life with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the International Labor Defense, and the Communist International. She was also thought to be part of a secret Soviet underground apparatus that sought to recruit German and Italian students into the anti-fascist resistance. Then, in June 1937, Poyntz mysteriously disappeared from her Manhattan boardinghouse, never to be heard from again, presumably killed by Soviet agents, a U.S. victim of Stalin’s purges.

Poyntz’s life and her unexplained disappearance are historically relevant and worthy of research. Lynn, however, digs deeper. Instead of a standalone biography of Poyntz, Lynn analyzes Poyntz’s disappearance as a political prop in a larger anti-communist narrative, a partial, though spurious, justification for the Red Scare civil liberties assault of the 1950s McCarthy era.

The mystery of Juliet Stuart Poyntz’s disappearance is mixed up with pre-World War II Stalinism and the political manipulation of Cold War anti-communism. Seen here, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1930. | Workers Library Publishers / Digitized by Tim Davenport

That Poyntz’s disappearance and presumed killing were also used by the anti-communist left is revealing. As Lynn writes, “Poyntz’s 1937 disappearance was a defining moment for the prewar anti-Stalinist left, influencing those who produced and reified anti-communist discourses to shift their political allegiances from Marxism to liberal and conservative anti-communism.”

As she notes, this is an important if neglected distinction, as much of the historiography of the dismantling of the New Deal coalition and the emergence of the Red Scare and Cold War traditionally focuses on the ascendancy of the Republican Party and Dixiecrat conservatives.

Additionally, Lynn looks at gendering and anti-communism in a larger Cold War context. She notes, “Poyntz had been a forceful, independent voice in the CPUSA…a devoted communist willing to sacrifice her life to defeat fascism and usher in an anti-racist, anti-sexist, socialist America.” However, this militancy, this Poyntz full of agency, “did not make it into the anti-communist narratives she was erased by the gendered constructions that were central to anti-communism.”

Complicating Poyntz’s disappearance is the fact that she was not reported missing by fellow Communists (some assumed she was likely on a secret assignment), or by friends within the anarchist left (who did not trust the police) until months later. Further confounding this story is the fact that neither the police nor the FBI seemed to care about her disappearance. That a U.S. citizen had been presumably taken and killed by representatives of a foreign government mattered little until it became politically expedient, until it served Cold War purposes years later.

Central to Lynn’s argument is how radical anti-Stalinism “eventually transformed into anti-communism as activists began to couple their anti-Stalinism with a wholesale rejection of Marxism.” Interestingly, Carlo Tresca, one of Poyntz’s anarchist friends who “harassed public officials” regarding her disappearance, was in 1943 gunned down in New York City. It is believed by some that his murder was the result of “his accusations against the Soviets and the CPUSA.”

Swirling around the mystery of Poyntz’s disappearance, like so many vultures, were a unique cast of characters that included several former Communists-turned-informers, such as Benjamin Gitlow, people who later embellished the mystery of Poyntz’s disappearance for their own opportunistic reasons.

Gitlow, a founding member of the CPUSA who was expelled from the party in 1929 and eventually broke with communism altogether over the course of the 1930s and later wrote a memoir titled I Confess, characterized Poyntz as “strong but not smart, a characterization the historical record contradicts.” As Lynn argues, “powerful, independent women were a threat in Cold War America, and Gitlow was known for subscribing to gendered assumptions about women’s vulnerability and limited intelligence.”

“Gitlow depicted Poyntz simultaneously as a naïve child unable to realize that her life is in danger and as an agent who knew her life was in danger because she was trying to detach herself from the OGPU [the Soviet secret police],” Lynn added.

Gitlow’s account “requires leaps of the imagination at every turn…providing details that only the killers could have known.” Now it is obvious that Gitlow’s account—like Tresca’s, and others—is largely a work of fiction. However, during the Red Scare and Cold War, this fact mattered little, as the mystery surrounding Poyntz’s disappearance was more enticing and compelling to political inquisitors than objective facts.

As Lynn writes in her conclusion, we will probably never know what actually happened to Juliet Stuart Poyntz. “But in Cold War America, what really happened to Poyntz quickly became less important than the meaning of what had happened to her.” Poyntz’s story is part of “a foundational narrative” that proves to anti-communists that communism is evil and this evil “did not require actual evidence in order to indict the Soviets and, by extension, American Communists.”

Further, Poyntz’s disappearance “inspired a generation of American Marxists to move to the political right, with lasting consequences for the American left.” This is an astute observation, as the anti-communist left and anti-communist right effectively worked in tandem as a political pincer move to suffocate what was for a brief few decades a vibrant and expansive Communist-led left. Of course, the negative consequences of this anti-communist alliance are still being felt to this day.

Denise M. Lynn’s Where Is Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War is an important book. It not only rescues Poyntz from the Cold War gendered caricature, but it also challenges long-held narratives used to justify Red Scare political repression. Additionally, it rightly points to the damage done by the so-called anti-communist left in emboldening the far right.

Where Is Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War
By Denise M. Lynn
University of Massachusetts Press, 2021, 206 pp.
ISBN-10: 162534547X
ISBN-13: 978-1625345479


The Cold War : A New History

The “dean of Cold War historians” (The New York Times) now presents the definitive account of the global confrontation that dominated the last half of the twentieth century. Drawing on newly opened archives and the reminiscences of the major players, John Lewis Gaddis explains not just what happened but why—from the months in 1945 when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. went from alliance to antagonism to the barely averted holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the maneuvers of Nixon and Mao, Reagan and Gorbachev. Brilliant, accessible, almost Shakespearean in its drama, The Cold War stands as a triumphant summation of the era that, more than any other, shaped our own.

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THE COLD WAR: A New History

Cold War scholar Gaddis fashions a short but comprehensive account of what JFK called our "long twilight struggle."Following the defeat of the Axis powers in WWII, the western democracies faced off . Читать весь отзыв

The Cold War : A New History

Both of these books treat the Cold War without stepping on each other's toes. Gaddis (history, Yale Univ. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience) is one of the foremost scholars on the Cold . Читать весь отзыв

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Об авторе (2006)

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History of Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, including The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972) Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security (1982) The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987) We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997) The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002) and Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004).


The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Volume 1, Origins

Melvyn P. Leffler is Edward Stettinius Professor of American History at the Department of History, University of Virginia. His previous publications include To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine (2008, as co-editor), For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (2007, winner of the AHA George Louis Beer Prize) and A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration and the Cold War (1992, winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Robert Ferrell Prize and the Herbert Hoover Book Award).

Odd Arne Westad is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His previous publications include The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2005, winner of the Bancroft Prize, the APSA New Political Science Prize and the Akira Ireye Award), Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950 (2003) and Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963 (1999, as editor).


Russia and the Idea of the West

By Robert English

Next you’ve chosen an intellectual history by Robert English. Please tell us about Russia and the Idea of the West.

This book is in one respect the odd one out of the five. It is more of a specialist work. It is well-written, but very detailed in its account of the gradual emergence of new ideas in Soviet small-circulation books and journals long before the perestroika years (1985-1991). These ideas were empowered and radicalized following Gorbachev’s arrival in the Kremlin.

The other books in my list have much to offer specialists, but are consciously aimed at a broader readership. Robert English’s account of how radically new ideas were being developed by a minority of intellectuals within the Communist Party may have too many unfamiliar names and concepts to appeal to many general readers. But what he persuasively contends is little understood by a lot of authors who write on the Cold War, particularly those who think that it was ended by a combination of Ronald Reagan’s military build-up and his belligerent rhetoric, such as describing the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’, or who imagine that there was cause and effect between his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’) and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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We need to understand that there were different strands of thinking within the Soviet Communist Party and fresh ideas emerging long before Reagan entered the White House, but—as English makes clear—it was only with Gorbachev’s succession to the party leadership that (to quote the title of his penultimate chapter), ‘The New Thinking Comes to Power’. There was influence from the West over the post-Stalin decades, but within the Communist Party it came from Western culture, contacts between Soviet and Western intellectuals, and the attraction for an increasing number of Soviet citizens of democracy combined with greater prosperity. What influenced them least of all was strident anti-Soviet rhetoric.


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The Cold War : A World History

We tend to think of the Cold War as a bounded conflict: a clash of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, born out of the ashes of World War II and coming to a dramatic end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in this major new work, Bancroft Prize-winning scholar Odd Arne Westad argues that the Cold War must be understood as a global ideological confrontation, with early roots in the Industrial Revolution and ongoing repercussions around the world.

In The Cold War, Westad offers a new perspective on a century when great power rivalry and ideological battle transformed every corner of our globe. From Soweto to Hollywood, Hanoi, and Hamburg, young men and women felt they were fighting for the future of the world. The Cold War may have begun on the perimeters of Europe, but it had its deepest reverberations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where nearly every community had to choose sides. And these choices continue to define economies and regimes across the world.

Today, many regions are plagued with environmental threats, social divides, and ethnic conflicts that stem from this era. Its ideologies influence China, Russia, and the United States Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed by the faith in purely military solutions that emerged from the Cold War.

Stunning in its breadth and revelatory in its perspective, this book expands our understanding of the Cold War both geographically and chronologically, and offers an engaging new history of how today's world was created.


Latin America and the Cold War

The twentieth century began in Latin America with the Mexican Revolution, when Pancho Villa in northern Mexico and Emiliano Zapata in southern Mexico created an opportunity for new liberal forces led by Alvaro Obregon. After defeating Villa on the battlefield, Obregon held a constitutional convention in 1917 which produced a document that embraced agrarian reform, an eight-hour work day and the right to organize labor unions and a declaration that the subsoil belongs to the state in the name of the people. The was a return to the tradition of the Spanish Empire that subsurface minerals belonged to the people or to the state, rather than to individuals or companies. These ideas were inspirational for the rest of Latin America and even other parts of the world: the Mexican Revolution predated the Bolshevik Revolution by several months.

Logo of Petróleos Mexicanos, the state-owned oil company established by Cárdenas. The motto means, “For the rescue of sovereignty”.

It took a generation for Mexico to realize this goal, but in the 1930s, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, land reform was implemented that brought back indigenous communal landholdings, broken up during the Diaz period. And in 1938, Cárdenas nationalized Mexican oil, taking over leases given to U.S. and British oil companies. The American president, Franklin Roosevelt, who had begun a “Good Neighbor Policy” toward Latin America when he took office, to emphasize trade and cooperation rather than military force, did not intervene when oil companies objected. Britain acquiesced in order to assure Mexican support in what everyone understood would soon be the next world war.

Cárdenas was part of a wave of populist heads of state in Latin America, charismatic leaders who tried to address the needs of “the people,” which by the 1930s and 1940s included rural peasants as well as the urban working class. Latin American Populism also attracted a rising professional middle class, shut out of political power by traditional oligarchies. In Argentina, this new middle class included first-generation immigrants from Europe who supported a new Radical Party in the first decades of the twentieth century. Argentina was second only to the United States as an immigration choice for impoverished Europeans, particularly Italians, Germans, and Eastern European Jews. In other cases, army officers who had received professional training either at home or abroad by European military missions felt that the oligarchs were insufficiently patriotic and needed to be replaced.

The populists also supported nationalist economic measures, including p olicies of import substitution industrialization, land reform, and efforts to reduce dependency on international markets for their mining or agricultural goods. The crisis of the Great Depression emphasized the importance of building independent domestic economies and instituting education, housing, and infrastructure improvements for all of the people. The global war against fascism inspired many to embrace democracy and overthrow long-standing military regimes, like in Guatemala, Venezuela, and Cuba although these attempts at democratic practices were frequently short-lived.

Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas (left) and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (right) in 1936

Two of the most notable populist leaders are also examples of civilian and military versions of populism: Getúlio Vargas of Brazil and Juan Perón of Argentina. Vargas was an opposition candidate who lost in a fraudulent election to an oligarchy-backed candidate in 1930 a brief uprising made him president. He skillfully faced down a separatist revolt in the wealthy coffee state of Sao Paulo, but after embracing a degree of liberal democracy, in 1937 Vargas established an authoritarian state in order to prevent communist-supported leftists being elected. However, he also rooted out a new fascist movement and disbanded it as well, setting himself up to accept U.S. aid and support the Allies in World War II. Brazil was the only nation in Latin America to send troops to fight alongside the Allies in Europe. Vargas stepped down in 1945, but ran again for president in 1950 and was reelected.

Perón, on the other hand, was an army officer who had served as a military attache in Italy in the 1930s, witnessing up close the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Argentina at the time was governed by politicians elected through fraud that suppressed calls for reform by the Radical Party. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the military overthrew the corrupt regime, instituting a government that they felt was more dignified and responded more directly to the people. Juan Perón, a key player in the coup, chose to become the Minister of Labor. By guaranteeing labor law and favoring the workers in negotiations, he became popular among the urban masses in Buenos Aires. Although the military regime grew nervous about his growing popularity and had Perón arrested, the workers came to his aid. He was released and was elected president of Argentina in 1946.

Perón benefited from a postwar economic boom in Argentina. He could promise and deliver on higher wages, better living and working conditions, and vacations for workers as tax revenues rolled in because of high international prices for Argentine wheat and beef. In the context of the Cold War, Perón proclaimed that he represented a “third way” between unfettered capitalism and totalitarian communism. Perón claimed that his government improved the lives of Argentinians without having to take sides in the superpower conflict. This made him particularly annoying to the United States, which often had to face Argentine opposition at regional conferences.

President Juan Perón and his wife, “Evita”, arrive in Madrid.

Perón bet on never-ending good times, especially when it seemed that the Korean War might lead to a World War III in which Argentina would benefit. However, shortly after he was reelected in 1952, Perón’s popular wife, Eva Duarte, died of ovarian cancer at age 33. Hundreds of thousands attended her funeral and a cult of “Santa Evita” quickly took hold. The Argentine economy began to suffer as the world recovered from World War II and Argentina faced competition for its wheat and beef in the international market. Like Vargas, Perón also faced inflation and political scandals. A bitter fight with the Catholic Church led to Perón’s ouster by the military in 1955 and the suppression of the Peronist movement until Peron was invited back from exile to be reelected president in 1973.

  • Why might Populism have appealed to the people of Latin American nations?
  • Was Mexico justified in nationalizing the country’s oil industry.

Although the United States congratulated itself that it had replaced blatant military intervention and “dollar diplomacy” with a “Good Neighbor Policy” under Franklin Roosevelt, nations like Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras were still thoroughly dominated by the United Fruit Company (UFC) still Banana Republics. After World War II, the Dulles brothers became leaders in developing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. John Foster Dulles was a corporate lawyer who had helped negotiate huge land giveaways to UFC by the governments of Guatemala and Honduras. After serving as a Senator from New York, Dulles was appointed secretary of State by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. His brother Allen Dulles was on UFC’s board of directors before he served as President Eisenhower’s CIA Director.

In 1954 the democratically-elected government of Guatemala began talking about seizing some of the vast tracts of land the United Fruit Company had acquired but was not using. The government planned to buy back the land from UFC and redistribute it to the poor. The Dulles brothers accused the Guatemalan government of having close ties with the Soviets and sent in the CIA to overthrow it in a military coup. Guatemalans resisted the new regime and the country fell into a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996 and killed up to 200,000 people. ​

President Dwight Eisenhower with John Foster Dulles, 1956.

One of the key elements of Latin America’s relationship with the outside world seems to be the question of revolution and the threat nations like the U.S. claimed to fear, of socialist, anti-capitalist movements in the Western Hemisphere. In many cases the anti-capitalism expressed by Latin Americans was actually resistance to what they perceived as economic imperialism by nations like the U.S., which regularly defended American-based corporations that operated freely in their nations and often intervened in their politics. Latin American nationalist leaders like Getúlio Vargas in Brazil (President from 1930-45 and 1951-54), Juan Perón in Argentina (President from 1946-55 and 1973-4), or Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico (President from 1934-40), who nationalized the Mexican oil industry, were not Marxists, or even particularly socialist in their orientation or policies. Import Substitution Industrialization was a capitalist approach to reducing dependency, and even when nations like Mexico nationalized natural resource extraction, they usually compensated foreign companies for the assets they were expropriating and then they ran the extractive industries as businesses in the world economy. Even when the government’s goal was something like land reform, they usually tried to compensate the former owners. The conflict over land reform in Guatemala was misrepresented by the Dulles brothers. The Guatemalan government offered UFC a price for the lands it took back based on the values claimed in the corporation’s tax filings. It may have been an open secret that UFC was defrauding the Guatemalan government, but the government was well within its rights to call that bluff. A truly communist government determined to eliminate capitalism in Guatemala might simply have claimed UFC had acquired the lands illegally and taken them with no offer of compensation. ​

Guevara (right) with Alberto Granado (left) in June 1952 on the Amazon River aboard their wooden raft, which was a gift from the lepers whom they had treated during their motorcycle journey.

Many idealists in Latin America and elsewhere were radicalized by the violence nations such as the United States approved or initiated to protect the interests of corporations but justified as defenses of democracy. An example of this was the experience Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who witnessed the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 before moving on to Guatemala in 1954. Bolivia’s struggle began when the candidate of the Movimiento Nationalista Revolucionario(MNR) won the presidential election of 1951 but was prevented by the military from taking office. Victor Paz Estenssoro armed civilians and the MNR took power after 3 days and 600 casualties. He served his first term from 1952 to 1956, and accepted US financial aid in return for compensating the tin mines he nationalized. Estenssoro softened the revolution’s approach to rewriting the mineral and petroleum laws, but he did redistribute land. Bolivians approved of his leadership and Estenssoro was re-elected in 1960, 1964, and 1985.​

Peasants on the altiplano, the high Andean plateau around the city of Cochabamba, seeing the changes in the mining codes, began seizing haciendas and dividing the land up amongst themselves. The government passed an Agrarian Reform Decree in 1953 to capture the campesinos’ support and control the process a bit. Before the revolution, less than 1% of the richest landowners in Bolivia owned half of the country’s land and 6% owned 92% of Bolivia. Under the reform, 185,000 peasant families, about half of all rural families, got titles to an average of about 20 hectares each. National agricultural output fell by about 10% after the land distribution, but probably because people were growing and keeping more produce for home use and trading it informally rather than taking it to commercial or export markets. Some cities saw food shortages, but these were offset by imports and some foreign aid. ​

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, 1961.

After witnessing this revolutionary change in Bolivia, Guevara went to Guatemala and watched a similar attempt crushed by imperialist armies operating to protect corporate profits. This experience and his romance with a Peruvian Marxist economist named Hilda Gadea Acosta, who he married in 1955, radicalized Che. When he was placed on an enemies list by the new Guatemalan regime, Guevara escaped to Mexico where he met Raúl and Fidel Castro, who were in exile there following a failed revolutionary coup in Cuba. Guevara became an ally of the Castros in June 1955 and joined the revolution. About 80 revolutionaries arrived in late November 1956 on the eastern tip of Cuba, but their numbers were reduced to about 20 in their first skirmish with Fulgencio Battista’s army. The survivors fled into the Sierra Maestra mountains and enlisted peasants into a guerilla army that harried the Cuban army for the next two years. In 1958, Guevara explained the guerillas’ success: ​

“The enemy soldier in the Cuban example which at present concerns us, is the junior partner of the dictator he is the man who gets the last crumb left by a long line of profiteers that begins in Wall Street and ends with him. He is disposed to defend his privileges, but he is disposed to defend them only to the degree that they are important to him. His salary and his pension are worth some suffering and some dangers, but they are never worth his life. If the price of maintaining them will cost it, he is better off giving them up that is to say, withdrawing from the face of the guerrilla danger.”​

The cold war was played out mostly through proxy wars: regional conflicts like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Russia-Afghanistan War where the combatants were provisioned, supported, and sometimes joined by troops from the superpowers. Occasionally, the heat level increased and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. barely avoided direct conflict. One of those times was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S.S.R. became a trading partner of Cuba after Marxist revolutionaries Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara overthrew the American-backed Battista government in 1959 and replaced it with a revolutionary socialist state. President Kennedy supported a CIA-sponsored plan to invade Cuba using anti-Castro Cubans in 1961, but the Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco. In October 1962 the U.S. discovered that the U.S.S.R. had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles from the continental U.S. Castro had not initially been looking for a close alliance with the Soviets, but he seems to have believed that the U.S. was going to continue its attacks (recently declassified CIA documents describing several more coup and assassination plans proved Castro’s fears were well-founded).

CIA map showing Surface-to-Air Missile activity in Cuba, September 1962.

The 13-day standoff ended with the Soviet Union withdrawing its missiles in return for American promises not to try again to overthrow Castro. Che Guevara announced “Our revolution is endangering all American possessions in Latin America. We are telling these countries to make their own revolution.” Che headed the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in 1964, where he made a speech criticizing apartheid in South Africa and said of the U.S., “Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin those who let the murderers of blacks remain free, protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men—how can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?” Guevara increasingly believed that the global north (the northern hemisphere nations) was guilty of oppressing the global south. He even criticized the U.S.S.R. for not doing enough to end imperialism, accusing Russia of forgetting Marx. Che supported the independence movements of indigenous peoples and left Cuba to try to encourage these revolutions, first in the Congo and then in Bolivia, where he was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian government forces in 1967 and summarily executed. Fidel Castro continued as Cuban president until 2008 when his brother Raul became President. Fidel died in 2016 and Raul handed over the Presidency in 2018, although he remains the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba until a planned retirement in 2021.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez relied on oil revenue to run programs for the poor, but failed to diversify his economy.

Twentieth-century cold-war conflicts involving Oil have not been limited to the Persian Gulf. Development of Venezuela’s oil resources, thought to be at least a fifth of known global reserves, began in the 1910s when the country’s president granted concessions to his friends to explore, drill, and refine oil. These concessions were quickly sold to foreign oil companies. In 1941 a reform government gained power and passed the Hydrocarbons Law of 1943 under which the government would receive 50% of the profits of the oil industry. The outbreak of World War II had increased demand for oil, and the Venezuelan government granted a series of new concessions that were snapped up in spite of the 50% tax. The postwar explosion of automobile ownership in the U.S. continued to drive demand, and Venezuelan production increased. Venezuela bought the Cities Service company and CITGO gas became a key export of Venezuela. In 1976, the government nationalized the oil industry. Oil was a mixed blessing for Venezuela, providing high levels of revenue to support government programs benefitting the people but also preventing Venezuelan industry from diversifying. However, the CITGO sign became a welcome sight for many New Englanders, as the company has donated millions of gallons of home heating oil to help hundreds of thousands of families in the Northeastern United States over several decades. ​

  • What were the ulterior motives of Americans behind their choices to intervene in Latin America to fight communism?
  • What did Ernesto Guevara mean when he described the differences between his soldiers and the government troops?

During the 1950s and 1960s colonialism mostly ended in Africa, although not without occasional atrocities such as the British oppression of the Kikuyu in Kenya in a conflict the British still lost, despite having overwhelming force on their side. In South Africa, the white government of F. W. De Klerk, who became president in 1989, finally began to dismantle the apartheid system that had oppressed the black majority for generations. Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a member of a royal native family of the Xhosa people who became a lawyer in Johannesburg and became active in politics after the white government began instituting apartheid policies in the 1940s. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation that completely separated the black majority from the white rulers and deprived them of political and civil rights. Mandela became president of the African National Congress (ANC), an organization established in 1912 to defend the rights of native Africans and mixed-race people in South Africa. He was arrested in 1956 for sedition and treason. Despite a commitment to non-violence, Mandela began leading acts of sabotage against government properties in 1961 and was convicted in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. ​

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in 1992.

De Klerk visited Nelson Mandela in prison a few months after becoming President and spoke with him for 3 hours. In 1990, De Klerk called for a new Constitution and shut down South Africa’s nuclear weapons program. Then he freed Mandela after 27 years as a political prisoner and lifted the ban on the ANC operating as a political party. After losing the presidential election to him in 1994, De Klerk served as one of Mandela’s Deputy Presidents from 1994-6. Mandela served as president for a single term and then stepped down. He focused on reconciliation while in office and in his retirement devoted himself to combatting poverty and AIDS. ​


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